‘Savages’ a tripped out buddy flick
Oliver Stone has a reputation for tackling provocative, relevant, contemporary, political and cultural topics ranging from the Oscar-winning “Platoon” (1986), “J.F.K.” (1991) and “World Trade Center” (2006). He introduced writer Quentin Tarantino’s violent satirical “Natural Born Killers,” which mocked media obsession with serial killers.
Intertwining 21st Century “gangstra” spin , a flashback to the stupor of Cheech and Chong, and the cinema’s fascination with choreographed action, Stone’s “Savages” shakes up taboos mincing horror standards into adult, mainstream action/romantic fare.
No one doesn’t find their hands bloody in the trio of characters seemingly untouched by recession and still dwelling on excess, represented by two pot growing executives – one a naive business intellectual negotiator and one a brawny, former Navy SEAL (Aaron Johnson, Taylor Kitsch) who happily share a common girlfriend (Blake Lively).
Harkening to “Pulp Fiction” as well as “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the two men’s after college frolic – high potency Middle Eastern pot – has earned them an idyllic oceanside condo. Long, curly-haired Ben (Johnson) manages the up-scale clientele with MBA precision and ex-special forces Chon (Kitsch) sustains supply and muscle mandates.
Although the partners have removed most of the sordid aspects of weed smuggling and sales (a Stone pitch for legalization of marijuana?), the Mexican Baja Cartel headed by a Cleopatra-inspired Elena (Salma Hayek), encroaches upon their exclusive California territory.
Buddies Ben and Chon could not be more polar opposite. One has soulful heart and logic; the other drips testosterone. “O” (a.k.a. “Ophelia,” played by Lively) shrewdly narrates their guns blasting odyssey balancing film noir darkness for “found footage” hokum. Lively says sayonara to her prior “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” chick persona quickly establishing herself as prime for more lusty lasciviousness here happily sharing her drug dealer boyfriends.
Which brings us to a tired, nearly useless, aging DEA agent, played by John Travolta, who is the symbol of justice betrayed. Keep in mind, Stone had a dire drug addiction himself so, perhaps, he’s molded the too laid back in-on-the-take agent as one more tool in the box subtly stating – stop the killing, make it legal. Vintage Stone would not have been so hinting at this controversial perspective; he likely would not have inserted Ben’s Buddhist principles to counter balance a conscience of misdeeds.
During hacking digressions of grisly torture, “Savages” seeks to mute the sadistic frames through insertion of short “rude” cracks at the Mexican cartel such as “joint venture” and O’s mostly gentile period as a hostage dilutes the anarchy. O’s mostly gender-correct, hands-off treatment by the cartel removes clock ticking countdown thrills that would have injected a little more adrenaline.
Somewhere swimming in this triple buddy exercise the siesta-styled editing seems to block either a jalapeno hot or mild take on the threats of weed border gangs. The same goes for its apparent approving attitude of blissful nose sniffing, which muffles the seriousness of deepening addiction. Viewers recognize the trio’s most vulnerable moments occur when they enter hallucinogenic nirvana.
Stepping away from my attempts to infuse topicality, “Savages” usurps the “hero” state of cinema for a cast of amoral characters on a Thunder Highway to Hades. One wonders whether audience reaction previews prevented a more sordid, trashy, and wicked emphasis, especially (possible spoiler alert) what may for hard-nosed Stone be to a tacked on ending.